EC criticises Bulgaria’s lack of progress on judicial reform

EC criticises Bulgaria’s lack of progress on judicial reform
Bulgarian parliament building
By Dimitar Koychev in Sofia January 27, 2016

The European Commission (EC) called on Bulgaria to make more progress in reforming the judiciary and tackling corruption in its annual report on the country’s progress under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) published on January 27.

The report, which focusses on judicial reform and the fight against corruption and organised crime, was published as Bulgaria’s ongoing efforts at judicial reform have become mired in political infighting. An attempt to set up a single anti-corruption authority also flopped when the plans were rejected by the parliament in September.

In a January 27 statement, EC first vice-president Frans Timmermans commented that Bulgaria had taken “some important steps to put reform back onto the agenda” in 2015.

However, Timmermans criticised the lack of implementation of the government’s plans. “Now it is time to move to the next stage by turning the strategies on judicial reform and the fight against corruption into action on the ground and delivering concrete results,” he said.

The EC also pointed out that many of the recommendations in last year’s CVM report still require action, which it said highlighted “a lack of determination in the efforts of the Bulgarian institutions in key areas of judicial governance.”

In December, the parliament adopted constitutional amendments intended to become the basis of a comprehensive reform of the judiciary. The EU has long been pushing for reform in this area, since problems in the judiciary have contributed to widespread corruption and weak enforcement of the rule of law.

The EC said that the amendments were an important step towards the reform of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) despite some significant changes from the originally proposed text. The EU urged Bulgaria to follow up to ensure that all changes envisaged in its judicial reform strategy become law.

However, changes to the original amendments proved controversial within Bulgaria, and justice minister Hristo Ivanov resigned in protest on December. The revision has been criticised for reinforcing the power of the prosecutor general while compromising the independence of judges.

The day before the CVM was released, both the centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and its junior coalition partner the Reformist Bloc issued statements calling on the SJC to dissolve itself.

The two parties cited the SJC’s involvement in a series of public scandals. GERB commented that the controversies have created the impression that the council cannot perform its functions and instead its members are preoccupied with internal conflicts. The ruling party’s statement also claimed that “attempts are being made for trading with political influence, solving corporate and economic interests and taking over the judicial institutions by vague circles and power centres.”

However, the government does not have the power to dissolve the SJC, and the sudden demands for its members to resign led to speculation within Bulgaria - including from Ivanov and SJC member Kalin Kalpakchiev - that the main goal of the demand is to divert attention from the EC’s report. Bulgaria’s cabinet declined to endorse the calls for the SJC to resign, as several ministers said they did not back the proposal.

In the anti-corruption area, the CVM report highlighted the setback in September when the parliament rejected a bill envisaging a new unified anti-corruption authority. “The government has announced its intention to resubmit the proposal in an amended form, but the rejection underlined a lack of political consensus behind the reform process”, the CVM report noted. The EC hence warned that progress in this area will be a key test of the country’s resolve this year.

The report also observed that Bulgaria still needs to establish a solid track record of reaching and enforcing final court decisions in serious organised crime cases. Such cases are still hindered by complex provisions and formalistic criminal procedures, and there continue to exist indications of witness intimidation, the EC said.